Unraveling Upper Back Tension

ropeOne of the most common problem areas my massage clients come in with is upper back tension. It’s amazing how tight these muscles can get with knots, trigger points, adhesions and ropy areas, often contributing to headaches, interfering with proper mobility in the neck and shoulders, as well as just feeling annoying and bound up. Nothing beats an effective professional massage, especially considering the type of leverage and angle needed to treat this area, but there are definitely some things you can do between massage sessions to help relax your shoulders:

Posture & ergonomics

Take a look at the position your body is in throughout the day, especially for long chunks of time or performing repetitive movement, noticing any postural imbalance such as: working with a computer monitor off to one side, slouching, standing with your weight shifted to one leg, sitting in a twisted position, reaching in front of you or above you repetitively, hunching your shoulders, caring for young children, etc. Just being aware of possible patterns can be helpful, so that adjustments can be made. There are many resources available for everyday ergonomics, such as: http://yourhealthblog.net/infographic-everyday-ergonomics/. For employees it’s worth checking to see if your employer offers any ergonomic checkups for your work space (it’s a win-win, helping to prevent repetitive injuries and missed days at work).

Shrug & hold

If a muscle hasn’t gone through its full contraction, the fibers can’t fully relax. You can use this principle to your advantage with this technique: take a deep inhale while shrugging your shoulders up high, hold for 6 seconds, big exhale & relax. Repeat 2 times. Now, with another big inhale, squeeze your shoulder blades together, hold for 6 seconds, exhale & relax. Repeat 2 times. Use this technique throughout the day to get rid of tension as it builds up in the muscle tissue.

Pressure point work

If you have a tennis ball handy, find a blank wall and back up to it, squat down a few inches and place the ball between your scapula (shoulder blade) and your spine, one side at a time. Whatever side you’re working on, move that hand to the opposite shoulder to open up the space in the midback. Slowly, slowly (really, the slower the better) squat up and down, so the ball massages your mid to upper back. You can get all the way to the top of the trapezius before the ball wants to flip over. Just use enough pressure to feel good. When you find a tight spot, stop, hold and breathe into it for 10-20 seconds. After 2 or 3 minutes, switch sides. This is one of my favorite low-tech methods.


Once you’re aware of what postural imbalances might be happening, think about doing the opposite. For example, people who work at a computer all day tend to have rounded shoulders and a neck that is extended forward, and would benefit from stretching out the pecs (especially at the end of the day) and doing a chin tuck to stretch out the back of the neck (throughout the day). Bob Anderson’s book has excellent stretching routines for specific areas of the body, all on a 1 or 2 page layout so they’re quick & easy to follow: https://www.amazon.com/Stretching-30th-Anniversary-Bob-Anderson/dp/0936070463/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475017140&sr=8-1& You can also check out phone apps that will remind you to stretch at set intervals & guide you through a routine of your choice.


Dehydration increases pain perception, interferes with proper circulation/waste removal in the muscles, and makes connective tissue more “sticky”, which can all contribute to the feeling of tension and pain. The Nutritional Therapy Association recommends water intake in the amount of ½ your body weight in ounces per day (generally not to exceed 100 oz/day); for example, someone that weighs 160 lbs. would have a goal of drinking 80 oz. of water per day. If you haven’t been drinking much water, start slow and work your way up. Think of your body as a dry plant that you’re watering–give it some time to get used to the extra water intake as it works to rehydrate and perk up.


Magnesium is an important mineral in the body–it has a relaxing effect on muscles, helps with stress, and can improve sleep. It’s not easy to get in sufficient quantities from food, so it may be worth trying as a supplement. Always check with your doctor, especially if you have any health issues. My favorite form is Magnesium Glycinate or Magnesium Malate, especially for those with sensitive systems. Natural Vitality Calm is also a good choice if you prefer a powder that you can stir into water, but can have a laxative effect for those with a sensitive gut.

Learn to say no

Are you “holding the weight of the world on your shoulders”? Try cutting back on your to-do list, practice having good boundaries, ask for help, let go of other people’s drama, and make sure you have downtime for relaxing and self care.

A reminder

“Your shoulders are not earrings. Drop ‘em!” Someone said this to me this years ago–it made me laugh but it really stuck. Shoulders tend to creep up as the day goes on, so this one is just a quick simple reminder. Take a deep breath and drop ‘em.

For chronic pain & tension

If you have been having problems with upper back tension for years, I’d recommend scheduling 3 sessions of massage, 1-2 weeks apart. This allows time to work out the majority of bound up muscle tension in most people, digging you out of the chronic tension/pain mode you’ve been stuck in. Then you can figure out your “maintenance schedule” for massage–most people are somewhere in the range of 2-6 weeks, depending on the demands on their body, their stress levels and self care habits.

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